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Could the NCAA Scandal Affect Travel Teams? An Industry Ponders the Question

18 Oct, 2017

By: Michael Popke

In late September, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office indicted 10 men, including active assistant basketball coaches at Arizona, Auburn, Oklahoma State and USC, plus an adidas executive. Prosecutors say they accepted $100,000 to $150,000 in bribe money to steer players to certain advisers and representatives of a shoe company (reportedly adidas) to persuade high school players to attend particular colleges and universities.

This development potentially has major ramifications for the future of the game.

“The revelations … shook the sport to its core, possibly triggering major changes in the way top high school players are showcased and recruited in the future,” writes Andrew Miller in the Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C. A former assistant coach at the University of South Carolina, Lamont Evans, is among those named in the scandal, for accepting at least $22,000 to “exert his influence over certain student-athletes.”

As Miller notes, Nike, Under Armour and adidas pour millions of dollars every year into elite traveling basketball teams comprised of high school players. He referenced an adidas Summer Championships game held in Las Vegas in July, which attracted 4,000 fans wanting to see two of the hottest high school recruits in the country — Zion Williamson and LaMelo Ball. ESPN’s SportsCenter covered the game, and college coaches reported never seeing anything thing like it before.

No wonder sports apparel companies are so desperate to get a piece of the action.

“The shoe companies control a lot of what happens on the summer circuit,” veteran high school coach Antoine Saunders, who co-founded the Charleston-based travel team TMP Basketball, told Miller. “If you don’t have a sponsorship, it can be difficult to get invited to some of the tournaments.”

TMP Basketball doesn’t have ties to any shoe and apparel provider — for good reason, according to another co-founder, local businessman Richard Davis. “It’s not like the apparel companies just write you a check and let you do what you want,” Davis said. “They want total control over your program. They want to call all the shots when you get into bed with them. They’ll tell you who can coach your team and what players can play. That’s just not the way we do business. We think we do it the right way.”

Many colleges and universities rely heavily on apparel deals. As AL.com reports, “UCLA landed a 15-year, $280 million deal from Under Armour while Nike secured 15-year deals with Ohio State and Texas for $252 million and $250 million, respectively. Only two months ago, Louisville announced a 10-year, $160 million apparel deal that made it the highest-paid adidas school in the country.”

“The fact that these deals are so costly is probably largely responsible for much of the illegal activity,” Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising told the website. “Brand success [is] dependent on the best athletes, most successful programs, biggest name schools wearing your logo. Yes, this may put a damper on the size of future deals. And those deals will be so closely examined; they’ll have to be extra-cautiously constructed and activated.”

The universities impacted by the three-year federal investigation are Alabama, Arizona, Auburn, Miami, Oklahoma State, South Carolina, USC and Louisville, which placed head coach and Hall of Famer Rick Pitino on unpaid leave (effectively firing him).

Other fallout from the corruption and bribery scandal includes several top recruits decommitting from the universities involved and the potential lowering or loss of bond rating at some of those universities. 

Despite the challenging time college basketball is experiencing right now, Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes remains optimistic. “This game is big and it’s going to survive … and, hopefully, it is going to be better off,” Barnes told local media in Knoxville. “Maybe it changes recruiting, AAU basketball, who knows. I don’t know. I think there are going to be some issues yet that have to be looked at. Our game is going to survive it because it is a great game, and it has survived a lot of different things.”

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